Persons of a nervous disposition…

A short story for Halloween.
I do not recommend that you read this – you have been warned!

It was the first morning in a long time that Andrew Forbes woke up feeling calm. At some point during the night he had finally made his peace with the world. It was a sensation which was so unfamiliar that, if it did not feel so pleasant, would have left him feeling very uneasy.

His estimate of one hour and forty minutes sleep was more than he would have expected when he had gone to bed at nine-thirty the night before. But the small hours had proved the perfect place to find the inspiration that was needed to solve the puzzle of his persistent anxieties. The sense of freedom it gave was remarkable. This must be what it is like to be released, unexpectedly, from prison, he thought.

The sleep had been welcome. More welcome had been the uncharacteristic absence of nightmares. But for some reason he had dreamt of a girl who, in his youth, he had liked, but who’s standoffish demeanour had caused him to withdraw from her circle, accepting the disinterest graciously. Not long after this nascent flame had been so readily extinguished, he had been on a bus on his way home from school and overheard a conversation between two friends of the girl. Apparently she wanted to pursue a boy, but was advised by her friends to play ‘hard to get’. The tactic had backfired. Andrew Forbes’ self-image was such that, at the time, it did not occur to him that he was the boy in question.

Forbes was by nature a man who accepted his place in the social order. Recently, when certain people had promised to contact him, but never did, he assumed that there must have been higher priorities to deal with. And on his yearly hospital appointment, waiting patiently for over an hour, before asking, nervously, if he would be seen soon, he accepted that the staff had a difficult job to do. Even on the occasion when he had been seen by a junior doctor, whose line of questioning made it obvious she had been drafted in at the last-minute to cover for a consultant who, evidently having something more important to do, had simply forgotten about him, Forbes spent the rest of his day hoping he hadn’t appeared angry to the young physician. After all, she was just doing her job.

But today, nothing like that would be on his mind. Today, his ‘to-do’ list contained only one item; and he had all day to do it. His clarity of purpose was like a force of nature – like electricity, he thought. He had always had rather a strong admiration for electricity. Apart from the clean white light it could provide, and its perfect hygiene, there was a kind of decisiveness to it. It would sit there quietly waiting, and at the right moment would do precisely what it needed to do. This was exactly how Forbes was feeling as he left the house and drove to the hardware store.

Sometime later, Frank Grey was relieved, at last, to leave his office. The patient roster today had been tedious – the usual trail of time wasters moaning about how bad their lives were. He longed for someone with a real illness – one he could use his hard-won training and experience to treat. Hastily he put on his coat, grabbed his briefcase and strode toward reception. “Good night”, he said cheerfully to the woman behind the desk, but secretly chided her for taking too long to buzz him out of the building. He could never remember her name.

It was dark, but still early. Thick shrubs sheltered his car from the worst of the wind. Large cold drops of rain stung the back of his gloveless hands and caused him to drop his car keys. “Bloody hell,” he said out loud, stooping to pick them up. He pressed the unlock button and could see the familiar yellow flashes reflected in the wet car park surface as the crosshead screwdriver entered his right cheek. It stabbed at his left gum with some force, and was thrust repeatedly until it was able to pass between his teeth and exit through the other side of his face. Of course he tried to scream out the agony, but was prevented by a gag reflex caused partially by the blood trying to enter his throat and partly by the thin steel bar pulled against the back of his jaw hinge.

“Hello doctor,” spoke a polite voice from behind him. “I’ve been trying to contact you, but you’re a difficult man to get hold of.”

Grey felt himself being dragged backwards. His instincts should have been working toward escape, but the assailant’s speed and precision of action prevented Grey’s brain from concentrating on anything but keeping enough balance to prevent his lower jaw from being ripped off. Even the stomach had to wait for Grey to be thrown onto a hard plywood floor before it could vomit up its distaste for such pain. Somewhere outside him he could hear the echoing thud of doors being slammed shut. He was just about able to push himself onto his knees. This gave him some slight relief and enabled him to pull out the screwdriver, but his hand slipped in the ensuing pool of blood and his head bounced off a cold metallic wall. He thought he could hear an engine starting and a voice say “are you alright back there?”. Coughing a warm sticky mucus, he managed to turn onto his side.

“Sorry about this doc.” the voice seemed to say. “Now I don’t want you to worry. I’m taking you to my ‘happy place’. You’ll like it there. Its lovely and peaceful…,” the voice faded and Grey passed out.

Who was it told him he would not feel pain in dreams? Whose voice could he hear, as if from under water. I wouldn’t advise waking up yet, it said. But it was too late. Adrenaline poured into his bloodstream. More of the automatic mechanisms of survival roused him and forced him to face the ‘unpleasant situation’ in which he found himself. His face throbbed, unbearably. His hands, illuminated by a small desk lamp, were held fast to a table in front of him.

“They’re called tie-wraps,” said the voice. “Amazing invention really. You’re wrists are essentially being held down by less than a millimetre of plastic.”

Grey tried to mouth words: “Why are you doing this?”

A face, eyes gentle with sadness, smiled at him. “I just wanted to talk.”

“Look, it’s not too late to let me go. No real harm has been done…”

“Actually it is too late.” He stepped back to put on a pair of ear defenders. Grey writhed fruitlessly as the man lifted an axe and brought it down onto the fingers of Grey’s left hand. “You’re probably wondering why I haven’t taped up your mouth!” the man explained loudly over Grey’s screams. “It’s because I want you to be able to call for help! I want you to know what it’s like.” He lifted the axe again, this time to remove the tips of the fingers on the other hand, then placed it on the floor, leaning against the table. He reached into a bag and pulled out a laptop computer, opening it up. He placed the keyboard under what was left of Grey’s fingers.

“Listen!” He had to speak up to make himself heard. “Nobody is going to hear you out here, so I’ve set you up with some mobile internet. There is plenty of online credit, but I’m afraid the battery isn’t very good.” He reached down again to the bag this time coming up with an expensive looking craft knife. Grey’s eyes rolled and he started to sob uncontrollably. Impatient for the first time, the man snapped at him: “Oh, for God’s sake, why don’t you cheer up? This isn’t for you.” The laptop screen lit up.

“You know, it’s remarkable how liberating it is to lose a child – your only child.” The thing inside Grey’s mind watched as, at first in splatters, then in a flood, Andrew Forbes’ blood obscured the image of a lone tree, on a rolling green hill, under a blue summer sky.

Chaos and disorder

Daryl fans will probably spot his influence in this

It having been pointed out to me recently that my scientific background allows me to mix terminology into the work I produce, with interesting effect, and, me deciding to rise to the challenge of writing something scientific within a creative framework, I see no reason why I should not write about chaos and disorder scientifically, especially as they are subjects both dear to my heart and for which I have some understanding – disorder having been discovered as mere entropy, and chaos, well chaos is chaos, but is generally predictable if you know where you are starting from – yet as always when I try to walk along the boundaries between art and science I spend too much time looking for the border fence, which I suspect does not really exist but is just a no-man’s land between different culture-tribes, which are merely an extension of the interest groups that formed in the playground, which in my case were aligned with neither art nor science (which I only chose because I thought there was money in it), but rather with things which were dear to my heart like translating the entire works of Morrisey into German (which, apart from “schadenfreude”, I have yet to learn) and then having a Buddhist monk translate them back into English; or persuading the entire Swiss Navy to perfom morris dancing to the theme from Doctor Who, who by the way is not a real doctor but merely has a PhD in everything possibly knowable (including medicine), and who opened my eyes to the possibility of directing a soft porn movie called “Debbie Does Durlsey” and discovering things which were far more interesting than watching sci-fi on television, and try to understand what was beneath the skin of an onion, so to speak, by using science, which was clearly far more rigorous and useful than the vague and dangerous religion, and appeared to peel back the layers covering the reality which I was so desperate to discover, but in fact turned out to be a bottomless staircase, each step pretty much the same as the last (although I don’t deny that it was true that they were not the same step, and each one did take me further away from where I had started), and even though we were allowed to paint the steps any colour we liked, we spent too much time discussing the correct colour (in the end we just asked: “what is colour?”), declaring throughout that only Holy Mother Science would be able to deal with the monster beneath the stairs and issuing humiliations against those who dared disagree, and listening to Einstein, who invented the dice but refused to let God play with it, until the point when I could no longer see the difference between the elements (whether the Ancient Greek “big four” or those in the periodic table) and in any case every one of them had been eaten by something called language (was this the monster under the stairs?), and to the raucous sneering and yelling of the demagogues and the crowd chanting “we refute it thus!”, the only thing my poor ears could hear was Galileo muttering under his breath: “Eppur si muove”.


Last Tuesday we did an exercise. Rick suggested (I think) we write about taking a walk, perhaps along a beach, and change from one mood to another. This is the result, although I have modified it somewhat from the rougher original.

Perranporth, Polzeath, all the beaches of Cornwall: people gather there en masse on sunny days in summer. It is as if an oil tanker had struck a rock somewhere and smothered the sand with animate, bubbling, oil. The hedonism, the laughter, the flash and buzz of excited children, as lovely as it is, can overwhelm. I need to walk away. I need to climb the hill to get above it all, to throw my desperation into the void between sea and sun.

I walk without shoes. I need to feel the stones, the broken shells and sharp grass, under my pampered feet. I need to feel lungs pumping heavily, a rapid exchange of gases, salt air replacing anger and frustration, the vast sky displacing claustrophobia. I need to feel the dizzying fear of the vertical when it is close enough to touch. I need them all. I need them to wipe the world’s slate clean. I need emptiness.

When I reach the highest point, it is all but gone. It is like an agitated child that has finally given in to exhaustion and coiled in gentle sleep. I pull across his blanket, stroke his hair and lower myself onto a tussock. I sit and stare. I watch the wave-sets, sneaking in to shore as if under a carpet, coming to the end of the journey upon which the storm had set them days ago. I see them throw themselves onto the sand and rocks, exhausted, spent. Far out I see the gulls; I see them gliding, without effort, like paper, caught in the breeze. I watch the horizon, looking for the curvature of the Earth. I get up and continue on.

When I am able, I descend to another beach, where I am alone. There are no attractions. There is no food, no drink, no cheap plastic toys. This is too far to walk for families and their facsimiles of home. There is nothing for them here. There is only wet sand, soft like marzipan. It is a cool poultice for my feet. The waves rush in and greet me with kisses. I kneel and baptise myself to ward off the hot sun.

A lone kite-surfer hops and skips his board at the edge of the breakers. He is a hunter. His kite is a great bird that he has caught and is now trying to wrestle out of the sky. He leaps and it carries him high, high above the waves, high above the spray, high above the floating gulls. As he crosses the sun I think of Icarus, but he lowers gently onto the glittering water, and keeps moving. At this moment, I know I am ready to return.

Alex and Paul’s joint effort

Last Tuesday (19th) Rick set us up in pairs and asked each pair to write paragraphs of a piece of prose alternately. Alex and I wrote the piece below. I have transcribed it exactly as we wrote it on the night.

For some reason, the tide doesn’t want to be in or out during the middle part of the day. If you want to see ships enter the dock, you will have to catch the high tide, which is only early in the morning or late at night. I have only seen ships twice in my seventeen years in Berkeley.
Sometimes I watch the tides change, unaware that time has passed. The river sucks in water with an invisible straw, and lets it seep back in under the brows of the clouds.
Few creatures visit this place, preferring instead the comfort of the crowds up at the New Grounds. Sometimes I see a curlew; sometimes a sparrowhawk; but the sight of a lapwing, performing the aerial dance of a flock, alone, shows how empty it really is.
I remember once I took someone there. Dared them to share it with me. Ive tried to share it, but we soiled the silence with too many breaths, too many eyes; I was aware of the seconds and the moment seemed staged and finite.
There is nothing here that wants to be found. There is nothing to be shared except what you bring with you. You must bring the sky. You must bring the water. You must bring the emptiness, and the solitude.
I fear the people who bring nothing. I have distanced myself from their emptiness. I tell them to leave me alone by writing these words in the murky mudbanks with my weathered fingers. They get the hint and the fading daylight blends them into the night, whilst I stagger on.
Tomorrow they will be washed away. Tomorrow the river’s soothing touch will smooth away the scars. The healing has begun.